Sunheri Mahal in Akbar’s Tomb – A Stucco Polychrome Wonder

These are the gardens of paradise. Enter them and live forever’.

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With these words created in beautifully sculpted calligraphy by Amanat Khan, the man who was also responsible for the best of world calligraphy at Taj Mahal you enter the sprawling charbagh of Akbar’s Tomb in Sikandara.

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On both sides of the pathway you are in a green paradise spread over 120 acres. At the end of the pathway the southern face of the imposing Mausoleum welcomes you to its artistic parlour. Building of this five storied structure had been started in 1605 CE, but was completed by Jahangir in 1613 CE.

After reaching Agra from Ahmedabad in a late winter morning of March my first site to be visited in the city of Mughals was Akbar’s Tomb, located at Sikandara, roughly 10/12 km from Agra Fort.

Though the entire complex was a praise of worthy, but what stole my eyes was its Sunheri Mahal, the central high arched portal through which one enters the cenotaph. Sunheri Mahal is a vestibule decorated with stucco ornamentation and gorgeous frescoes in gold, blue, black and green.

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Stucco or plaster was treated as one of the finest mediums of decoration in Islamic architecture because it can be easily moulded and carved in a variety of ways.  Stucco was used for three main purposes: as mortar and building agent, as plaster for covering naked surface to appear smooth decoration and as a medium for stucco decoration. But because of its plasticity nature stucco was less frequently used for pure geometric designs and more often used in vertical arabesque arrangement.

In stucco medium, ingredients are lime, fine sand and gypsum. Stucco had developed in Classical Greece and in India it had been for the first time introduced in Gandhara Buddha sculptures.

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(Source: Pinterest)

Later it was redeveloped in Iran in 8th century CE and eventually it became a popular medium for mural decoration throughout nearest and the Mughals introduced it from Iran.

The Sunheri Mahal in Akbar’s Tomb is a treat to the eyes. Every inch of the walls and ceilings are profusely illustrated with vases, floral motifs, trees leaves and scrolls and with some of the finest calligraphy work of Amanat Khan’s creations. The calligraphy depicts verses of Quran praising the garden of paradise where every divine soul enters after death.

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The art of stucco that was introduced at Sunheri Mahal found further refinement at the tomb of Itmad Ud Daulah and Afzal Khan Tomb (also known as Chinni Ka Rouza) both in Agra.

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You also see splendid stucco work with polychrome murals at far off Deccan in Bijapur’s Jami Masjid.

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The paradise imagery of Sunheri Mahal however had suffered much devastation when the Mughal rule was in wane and Jats of Bharatpur were in rise. The Jats had ransacked Akbar’s Tomb, plundered all beautiful gold, precious stones, jewels, silver and carpets that once adorned the Sunheri Mahal and the adjacent chambers. Today what you see is the result of painstaking renovation by Lord Curzon in the beginning of the 19th century.

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